Please can you help me understand the modern meaning of the word 'chayav' (to be guilty of a transgression / to owe someone something) and give examples. Can you tell me whether such a word appears in the Tanakh (Bible)?
Chayyav is a term we find in rabbinic literature that indicates a debt or an obligation created as a consequence of sin. While it technically refers to the obligation to bring a sin offering in the Jerusalem Temple, it is often used to indicate the violation of a religious or a social norm. For traditional Jews who accept the binding nature of Torah and mitzvot, to be chayyav today requires teshuvah, the traditional steps of repentance: recognition of the sin, contrition, appeasement, and confession. It would apply to all acts, ritual, ethical, and interpersonal. For liberal Jews who do not accept the binding nature of mitzvot, it might serve as a stimulus for introspection and reflection about their expression of Jewishness.
There are so many things we just assume that we know until we look a little closer! After doing some research, I was surprised to learn that the word chayav does not appear in the Tanakh. The closest we get to this word in the Hebrew Bible is in Ezekiel, chapter 18, verse 7: “If a person has returned the debtor his pledge (chov) and has taken nothing by robbery…” Chov comes from the same Hebrew root as chayav. It would appear to mean an obligation or a debt. Most of its later meanings appear to revolve around this understanding of the root word, chet-vav-bet. The word is commonly used in rabbinic literature. According to Jastrow, the preeminent dictionary of Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, chayav has at least three meanings. (1) debtor, as in, “when the debtor admits that the note has not been paid;” (2) to be obligated, as in “he is obligated to leave the corners of his field for the poor;” (3) guilty, as in, “guilty of desecrating the Sabbath;” sometimes in rabbinic literature the word chayav is used for a sinner or a wicked person.
Generally, chayav is used today to speak about religious obligations. One is ‘obligated’ or not regarding the observance of certain mitzvot, commandments. The opposite of chayav is patur, exempt, as in the statement, “women are exempt from time bound commandments.” For contemporary Jews this is a difficult idea with which we are constantly wrestling. What does it mean to be ‘obligated?’ Who ‘obligates’ us? For traditional Jews obligation grows out of a concept of revelation; we all stood at Sinai and received the Torah from God along with the 613 commandments and the various explanations and elaborations of these commandments. Conservative Jews understand chiyuv, obligation, in a variety of different ways. For some, the Torah is a human response to revelation and not literally, ‘the word of God.’ Either through divine inspiration or human contemplation, our ancestors tried to write down what they experienced at Sinai. The obligatory aspect of Jewish law grows out of a sense that we discover God through the commandments and a sense of commitment to Jewish peoplehood. For some liberal Jews ‘obligation’ is a personal choice; we choose to obligate us but are not obligated by some transcendent power. This is obviously an over-simplification of a much more complicated issue, but the point is to say that we all understand what it means to be bound or obligated by Jewish law and tradition in different ways.
In rabbinic literature the issue is straight forward: one is either obligated or exempt, and the sages spent a great deal of time trying to ascertain the answer to this question for each individual mitzvah, commandment.
It might be help for us to think of chayav in its original meaning: an obligation is a pledge that was made by our ancestors and which we continue to carry with us. It is a sacred pledge which enriches and deepens our life rather than a debt, though we might think of it that way too. We are told, for instance, in the Haggadah, “Each person is obligated (chayav) to see himself/herself as if he/she personally went forth from Egypt.” That obligation/pledge creates a moral compass by which we try to live both spiritually and morally. The same might be said for every chiyuv, or obligation.
While I am not aware of the word CHAYAV appearing in Tanakh (BTW, it's a Talmudic term whose normative meaning is obligated or liable), the concept of obligation and/or responsibility most assuredly is present throughout Jewish literature and, more importantly, Jewish behavior.
The word is implicitly and intimately linked to the notion of covenant, the conviction and condition which we understand connects our people with deity, for the/our covenant describes, so to speak, a contract which imposes or requires certain norms, behaviors and, yes, restrictions. By way of analogy, I have a covenant with my spouse. Because of that commitment, there are certain things – whether I wish to or not – that I should, or must do and certain things that, were I to do so, would harm or, heaven forbid, break the connection.
In fact, the notion of obligation provides a valuable contrast to so much of what passes as the American perspective. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel's insight, American life is based on the triad of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He compares that to Judaism's offering an alternative vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of mitzvot (commandments, meaning obligations). So I do or do not do specific behaviors not necessarily because I want to, rather because I understand a commanding voice, a sense of CHIYUV, obliging me to respond, to engage, to do more that I thought required with the result, perhaps, to become more of the person I am meant to be.
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